Pyrrho, David Hume, and Living with Skepticism

Montaigne writes of the manners of the ancient skeptic Pyrrho:

Pyrrho, he who erected so pleasant a knowledge upon ignorance, endeavoured, as all the rest who were really philosophers did, to make his life correspond with his doctrine. And because he maintained the imbecility of human judgment to be so extreme as to be incapable of any choice or inclination, and would have it perpetually wavering and suspended, considering and receiving all things as indifferent, ‘tis said that he always comported himself after the same manner and countenance: if he had begun a discourse, he would always end what he had to say, though the person he was speaking to had gone away: if he walked, he never stopped for any impediment that stood in his way, being preserved from precipices, the jostle of carts, and other like accidents, by the care of his friends: for, to fear or to avoid anything, had been to shock his own propositions, which deprived the senses themselves of all election and certainty.

It’s very difficult to believe the truth of this report. Montaigne concedes that the account comes from reports themselves derived from hearsay. He took this description of Pyrrho from Diogenes Laertes who drew from someone named Antigonus, and the portrayal is several steps removed from the man himself. But it isn’t that the sources are scarce and tenuous that makes it difficult to believe, but rather that the characterization itself is so improbable. The ancient Greek philosophers pondered the ultimate nature of reality, whether it was matter or thought, many or one, finite or infinite, changeable or immutable but they lived in the same world we do. When walking they sometimes tripped and scraped their palms, when cooking they sometimes burned themselves, when banging their head against a low ceiling they felt a sharp pain. They were as aware and as certain of the ordinary course of cause and effect as anybody else. There is the famous story of Samuel Johnson, upon hearing of how Doctor Berkeley claimed that all objects were ideal rather than material, kicking a large, heavy stone and crying out “I refute it thus.” Johnson refuted nothing because Berkeley, like any philosopher, knew perfectly well that when somebody kicks such a hard, massive object, the result is obstruction, pain, and possibly a broken toe.

Acquaintances of David Hume were often astonished that so thorough and infamous a skeptic turned out to be so worldly, urbane, and genial. He was such a contented, affable gentleman that only a Rousseau could quarrel with him. Hume was also known for being fond of billiards and when he played, despite his skepticism, he little doubted that the cue ball would transfer its momentum to the colored balls upon striking them, and that they would be propelled onward according to the laws of Euclidean geometry and Newtonian physics. The laws of nature prescribe that certain effects follow from certain causes. Most are certain that there is something tying the cause and the effect together. This causality is an intuition, a feeling, a prejudice, or a habit of association. We see the movement of the cue ball, the two balls clicking together, and the movement of the colored ball, but we don’t see the causality. Hume pointed out that the cause and the effect are both perceived, and the causality is assumed but is not itself the object of any perception.

It is induction that leads us to think the effect will proceed from the cause, but simply because it is an induction doesn’t mean that it’s untrustworthy. We’ve learned the laws of nature, and we’re certain that they will hold true in the future just as they have in the past. All our behavior is based on our knowledge of these laws and if they all suddenly changed, we’d be unable to survive. If objects suddenly flitted out of existence, if time looped so that after travelling or laboring all day we ended up at our starting point, if we couldn’t tell which objects were permeable and which objects were impermeable in advance, if the operation and direction of gravity changed without warning or pattern, we’d be unable to cope with a world that’s challenging enough in its predictable form. Very few of us are worried on any of these counts and we are quite sure that the laws of nature will continue to pertain as they always have.

Yet we seem unable to come up with an ultimate basis for these laws. We don’t have a reason that these laws must be the way they are and they can’t be otherwise. This means that the laws of nature are contingent. This doesn’t mean that they sometimes operate and sometimes don’t. It means that they will remain in effect and must be coherent but they still could be completely different than they are. We can imagine possible worlds where gravity is repulsive (as it is at high enough temperatures), where the laws of atom building are different and there is a completely different table of periodic elements, where the four fundamental forces are replaced with completely different interactions. This contingency is unsettling, and in our distress, we shouldn’t be sneered at as a vain and parochial species who want to believe they’re special. Randomness should be unsettling for any thinking life form because thinking involves a search for the simple, for the compressible, for the rational.

Philosophers are as fully aware of how the everyday world works as the rest of mankind. Some like Thales, and Adam Smith are famously absent-minded, but Pyrrho knew full well that a kicking a stone lying in the street in Athens will hurt just as much as kicking a stone in London. That doesn’t mean that philosophy is the business of coming up with bad reasons for what everyone knows. Everyone knows that if a stone is rolled down the street in Athens or London it will eventually slow and come to a stop, but Aristotle believed that the stone moved because of a force acting upon it, while Jean Buridan believed that it moved on its own and stopped because of a force acting on it. The difference is immaterial on the streets of Athens or London but if we escape the Earth’s atmosphere and gravitational field, the difference is critical.

Similarly, some thinkers like Lucretius believe that the world is ultimately matter, and some like Berkeley believe that it is ultimately ideal. Just as Newtonian physics perfectly describes the world of slow-moving, medium-sized objects but breaks down when describing the very small, the very large, and the very fast, so the descriptions of materialism and idealism match our ordinary world equally well but when they are pushed past the boundaries of our experience one of them may be vindicated above the other. Plato or Aristotle, Hegel or Kant, Heraclitus or Parmenides, we may have to venture beyond the borders of our world into the twilight zone to settle the dispute.


Buridan’s Ass, or How the Mind Hinders Itself


Jean Buridan didn’t invent the donkey named after him as a counterexample to determinism. Since his principal contribution was in the field of mechanics, the donkey may be mods properly named in honor of Democritus, Leucippus, or Lucretius. The Stoics believed that the world was composed of atoms and that their motion and everything derived from their motion was entirely determined. The intuition was astute but the mathematics to describe their vision was lacking. The mathematical notation used by the Greeks was adequate to natural numbers of a limited size, but for huge numbers and for the fractions that fell between the natural numbers, this notation faltered. The place-value system that originated in India can represent such quantities with ease and precision, but without the benefit of these representations, quantities are much less finely set. The Stoics took their atoms to be very, very small but nevertheless of a finite size and, as their very name meant uncuttable, indivisible into smaller parts. In their description of reality, they were condemned to rely on finite quantities, and coarsely grained measurements, weaknesses exploited by their adversaries in the devising of counterexamples.


Buridan’s ass is a hungry donkey set between two piles of hay, one to the right, one to the left. The piles are exactly the same size, and they are exactly equidistant to the befuddled donkey between them. In our own age, we are so accustomed to the gargantuan numbers of astronomy, and the tiny intervals of particle physics that we find it incredible that distances or masses should be completely equal. We’ve learned to live without simultaneity, and so it’s easy for us to relinquish the precise equality of any measurements. Initial conditions are so finely set that the tiniest alteration will lead to drastically different outcomes, as Edward Lorenz discovered using the amplitude of place-value notation and computers. Montaigne suspected it without these aids.

It might rather, methinks, be said, that nothing presents itself to us wherein there is not some difference, however little soever; and that, either by the sight or the touch, there is always some choice, that, though it be imperceptibly, tempts and attracts us;

Setting chaos theory aside for a moment, there is also something peculiar about the psychology at work here. Again, in Montaigne’s words:

‘Tis a pleasant imagination, to fancy a mind exactly balanced between to equal desires.

The fancy imagines desire as having a certain mass, and it also imagines a central actor, an arbiter between these two desires and occupying some space between them. There is an ancient tradition that explains the emotions as the affects of humors, fluids which have different and sometimes contradictory influences on the mind and body. It is only a small step to take from thinking of the emotions as fluids to thinking of desire as a fluid as well. Desires may then be measured, poured into a flask and topping out at red lines with red numbers beneath. The arbiter in the middle of all this is similar to the homunculus debunked by Gilbert Ryle.


To say that somebody desires something, is to say that he will choose it over anything else. Desire isn’t some humor, some fuel that propels us toward certain objects. Desire is an act of preferring. It is impossible to think of an agent torn between two contradictory and equal desires, because desire is nothing more than choosing one thing and foregoing another. Desire can’t be quantified because it isn’t a measure but an indexing. The donkey will choose one pile of hay over the other. Some are lascivious and will pursue sex to the cost of their position. Some are avaricious and will pursue money over rank, some ambitious and will take rank and preeminence over wealth. Some are gluttonous and pick food over drink, some are drunkards and will rather drink than eat. The vain will take applause no matter what the cost, and the spiteful will forego their own acclaim for the humiliation of their enemies. These actors don’t make these choices because they are filled with twenty milliliters of rage but thirty milliliters of sloth and their sloth outweighs their rage and consequently they take no action when injured. We know them to be wrathful, slothful, envious, or greedy because of what they do and these are descriptions of their behavior and not some underlying humor.

Sumptuary Laws and Civic Virtue



In his Utopia, Thomas More wrote that in his perfect society, gold and silver were to be put to ignoble uses like chamber pots so that these precious would be despised by all citizens. Montaigne advocates similar measures for engendering a contempt for luxuries. A sympathy for sumptuary laws runs throughout the Renaissance and beyond. Not all writers believed that these laws could ever work but considered the intended effects salutary. From their reading of Plato, Livy, Plutarch and other authors, and their own understanding of ancient history, Machiavelli, Gibbon, and many more believed luxury and extravagance were the undoing of republics and empires alike.


The laws of Lycurgus were the most thorough and rigorous of all codes in curbing luxury. The Spartans used money minted of iron, on the rare occasions they handled money at all. The Spartans wore the simplest clothes, ate the coarsest food, and lived lives of hardship and privation, in order to make themselves peerless warriors. They were great fighters and Plato, Xenophon, and many more Athenian authors credited this abstemious lifestyle for their prowess on the battlefield.


Later writers like Livy and Plutarch made a natural comparison between the early Romans and the Spartans. Those Romans from the early days of the Republic, Cincinnatus, the Horatii, and Camillus, lead lives of rude simplicity, scratching out their daily bread from the soil, strengthened by hard manual labor and inured against every privation. These sturdy forefathers conquered an empire, and this accession of wealth corrupted their descendants. The Romans became gluttonous, lazy, effeminate in manner, accustomed to lives of ease and pleasure that rendered them unfit for the legions. The fall of Rome is a story of moral degeneracy.


Although remembered as the supreme exponent of unscrupulous measures, Machiavelli was a very moral author and he thought any republic corrupted in its manners incapable of surviving. What exactly is corruption. Everything Lycurgus and Cato the Elder would despise and denounce: riding in litters, wearing silk, eating off gold plate, sleeping in soft beds. Some like Gibbon and Montesquieu have a peculiar fixation with climate. Throughout his history, Gibbon contrasts the legions hardened by the winters of northern provinces like Dacia and Britannia with those legions enervated by their heat and torpor of Syria and Egypt. Against all counterexamples, he considers shivering somehow a fortifying exercise and insists that balmy climes are fatal to martial vigor. This bias persists into modern times and Toynbee deems the town of Capua particularly emasculating.


Augustus was so alarmed by the moral decay of the Roman state that he became one of the most prolific legislators of sumptuary laws. Over the next centuries, the legions, once manned by the citizen farmers of the nearby countryside, came to depend on contingents of German mercenaries and his fears seem to be well founded. The lecheries and debaucheries of Tiberius, Nero, and Caligula, so sensationally depicted by Suetonius provide an antipode to the heroes of Livy. We picture Cincinnatus at his plow alongside his degenerate descendants writhing in their orgies or hunched over their vomitorium. Such Mediterranean sybarites can never stand up to the burly giants sweeping down from the north.


Discomfort and privation do not make good soldiers. Men accustomed to riding horses (when it was still a skill useful in war), hunting, rifles, and trained to arms since childhood will at first be better fighters than their counterparts who may be equally robust and strong in body but lack this early training. They will keep this ascendancy for some while, but their adversaries will be seasoned by training and experience and soon match if not surpass them. The Southerners were convinced that one man in butternut was worth ten in blue but in the end the factory workers of the North beat the Southern cavaliers facing them. As Sam Houston had predicted, the descendants of the heroes of Lexington and Bunker Hill were found the equals with the descendants of the heroes of Cowpens and Yorktown. The Thebans learned the art of the phalanx from the Spartans and at Leuctra although outnumbered they defeated them.


Men don’t fight well because they’re poor, or hungry, or ill-clad. They fight because they believe they have a reason to fight. They fight because they think their actions matter. Citizens believe that the state is an enterprise in which they have a share. They must be sure that they have a voice in the decisions taken and a stake in the outcome of those decisions. With this assurance they can accomplish anything, without it they’re good for nothing. The Romans were no longer willing to serve under the eagles because they didn’t believe they had a voice or a stake and they were right. The Empire was the rule of one man, whether benevolent and despotic. There were many emperors over the next centuries, so wide in their extraction, so various in their circumstance and character, that any man might aspire to become emperor. If a gigantic Thracian peasant like Maximin, or a Syrian zealot like Elagabalus might rise to become emperor, the way seems clear for anybody bold or lucky enough to attempt that dangerous climb. Yet for the ordinary citizen to take a hand in the management of the state was quite impossible.


The Roman Empire held some of the fairest portions of the earth, and this wide and fertile expanse yielded much wealth that was channeled into the recruitment and maintaining of the legions. Yet while the citizens of the Roman Empire enjoyed its benefits, they took no part in its direction. The ordinary people kept their heads down and endured whichever adventurer had risen to the purple. In the general prosperity, very few young men were compelled by poverty to enlist in the legions. There were easier and safer ways to make a living. The natives of Italy no longer aspired to become centurions, and so the empire turned to the barbarian tribesmen, trained to arms since childhood and already grouped into their warrior bands.


The Russian peasants conscripted into the armies of the Czar in the First World War were no match for the Germans. The Germans were raised in comfort and plenty in comparison to their Russian foes, and they were the recipients of a public education which furnished them with the skills to fight a modern war and inculcated the nobility of service to the state. Growing up, the Germans had been better nourished, better educated, and more thoroughly indoctrinated. The Germans had imbibed a fervid and bellicose nationalism from the cradle, and the illiterate, confused, often unhealthy Russian serfs facing them stood little chance. The Battle of Tannenberg showed the immense might of a modern, industrial state. Schoolboys taught reading, arithmetic, and love for the Kaiser and the Fatherland throughout childhood, made terrible soldiers once grown to manhood.


It is upbringing, education, and above all, unity of purpose that makes for a citizen soldier. The Spartan fought for his companions in the mess, the Goths for a chieftain preeminent for his leadership and courage, the private in the Army of the Potomac for the union, the Roman legionary for the senate and people of Rome, and the German private in the Imperial Army for kaiser and fatherland. They fought alongside comrades and for a country or a cause that will stand and fall upon the outcome of their arms. If they become estranged from their leaders, if they consider themselves inhabitants only and not citizens, that courage will vanish.

Cuneiform Tablets, Betamax, and the Permanence of Knowledge

Letters are messy, sloppy things. They are imprecise by their very nature. The letter  R is simply a segment of a continuum of rhotic sounds that could be subdivided into two letters, or a dozen, or rather be lumped in with something nearby like the letter L. Not only are letters arbitrary in their first designation but they alter in every situation. Lenition, fortition, epenthesis, elision, Cheshirization, assimilation, and dissimilation will all change the letter spoken or written on the page based on the letters that come before or after. Numbers are clean and pure. The number two may have two integers next to it, one and three. If we include real numbers, 2.0000001 will be very close and 2.00000000000001 closer still, yet two is still entirely discrete and unpolluted.  It remains unaffected by what comes before and after. Perfect and unchangeable, numbers are not written in the book of nature; they are the book of nature. They stand above the ebb and flow of slang and borrowing, the tides of conquest and influence. Languages are born and go extinct and it is often impossible to tell when one takes up and one leaves off. At what point did Latin become Italian? Numbers have not just permanence but universality to recommend them. The symbol 2 may be spoken in hundreds of different tongues but means the same in all of them.

The attempts to base language on a perfect mapping of reality, to make language correspond to number have failed thus far. If language cannot be made perfect it might yet be made permanent by tethering it to number. If every possible sound producible by the human throat could be assigned on and only one real number, then language may inherit the eternity that pertains to number. Hitherto, all human knowledge has been borne by some corporeal vehicle. What we have learned has been traced on vellum or papyrus, scratched in clay, painted on walls, or retained in our own brains. When that vehicle is destroyed or disintegrates, that knowledge is lost forever. We look back and lament the burning of the Alexandrian Library, the immolations of Shih Huang-Ti, as well as those of Archbishops Zumarraga and Ximenes, the despoliation of anonymous barbarians, the repurposing of the ignorant and the indifferent. If numbers themselves, eternal and imperishable, could anchor our knowledge, it will be made invulnerable to mold, flame, vandalism, vermin, and even death.

In our age, our knowledge is pooled, but not stored in one gigantic reservoir but channeled among a huge number of ponds. The collected volume of all these ponds together amounts to an ocean of information, and this ocean can be reached from anywhere. There is no spot so landlocked, isolated, or benighted that it can’t be turned into a beach. This seems like welcome news. Throughout our history, we have advanced as a species but that progress has often been interrupted and sometimes been pushed back. Yet after the night has come the dawn, the winter is broken by the spring, death and desolation are followed by rebirth, and always through the rediscovery of the knowledge and wisdom of the past. These secrets, once lost are found again. We are creatures of precedent. We rely upon the discoveries and techniques so painfully achieved by our ancestors. What worked then will work just as well now. We learn that things were once better than they are now, that there is a better way of doing things, and everything changes. Our technology is algorithm, and as algorithm it is reproducible as long as it is understood. If we make tools out of stone, we learn of a metal called bronze. If groaning under tyranny, we are acquainted with the republics of the ancient world. The cure for diseases, the best usages of agriculture, the constitutions of passable if not ideal governments, the edifice of mathematics and the discoveries of science founded upon them, will all be found in this ancient knowledge. There has never been a cataclysm so great that all our accumulated wisdom has been wiped out. Some copy has always been hidden or locked away somewhere. We are the heirs to the trials and errors, the failures and the triumphs of our ancestors.

None of the disasters of the past has destroyed that heritage. Yet it is possible for some catastrophe so widespread and overwhelming to befall us that every book, every text, every record, every picture and image is effaced and we are hurled back to the very beginning. We will not stumble across any signpost to lead us out of this longest and most terrible of our dark ages. The chances of this are small but they aren’t null. What is more likely, in fact probable, is another painful regression. We flatter ourselves that this could never happen, not to us. Would the inhabitants of the Roman World under the Antonines believe that their empire will be smashed, their capital ruined and depopulated, and their world carved up into tribal fiefdoms ravaged by barbarian incursions? Could the sages of the Tang Dynasty ever imagine Genghis Khan?


In each of these cases, a civilization succumbed to a period of violence, poverty, and ignorance that was only slowly and agonizingly banished, but our own knowledge is ubiquitous and ever present, and without ignorance, violence and poverty cannot hold sway. Our art and science are written on clouds, nebulous and indestructible. Our wisdom is reposed safely in binary code to be rendered back into shape, color, letter, or image whenever called upon. We are proof against the exigencies that plagued our more primitive and vulnerable predecessors.

Our knowledge is reposed in binary but not even ones and zeroes can be set in some Platonic firmament. They most have some embodiment. They must be written on something solid. Early computers used large floppy disks to hold information. These evolved into smaller hard plastic disk with a metal slide. These disks gave way to CD-ROM’s. More recently the flash drive has appeared. Each new vessel is a marked improvement on what has come before, but each renders its predecessor unreadable and useless. Information is recorded in strings of ones and zeroes but these must be organized by some rule, some syntax that governs how their output is to appear. The modes by which we store, retrieve, and display that information change, and they are whizzing by faster and faster with every generation. The Parmenidean cloud turns out to be a Heraclidean river that can never be drawn from twice to yield the same mouthful.

Throughout history, whatever was recorded could be read unless its vehicle was damaged or obliterated. Archaeologists dig through the deserts of Iraq and unearth cuneiform tablets from the city-states of Sumeria. These tablets have lain under the sands for thousands upon thousands of years but their wedge-shaped imprints are still quite visible and can still be read ages later. Buy a Betamax copy of Mad Max at a garage sale for a nickel, and you’ve struck a bad bargain because you’ll never be able to view it. Even if the tape it was recorded on was still pristine, the means of displaying it have vanished forever. These storage devices are prisons for the knowledge held within.

Kings of old used to lock away their enemies in oubliettes, cells in which they were held until death, forgotten ever after. The prisoners were transitory, soon crumbling to dust, while their stone cells remained to entomb the next occupant. We lock away our school projects, films, videos, photos, documents, and writings in these plastic oubliettes. Unlike granite and iron, these plastic and polyester components soon degrade. Even if they didn’t the treasures within would be lost forever. If the prison remained intact, the key to unlocking it vanished long ago.

We cannot stop this frantic rush, and perhaps there is no need. The internet is a flow of information, and like all global processes it is fluent, vast, and chaotic. And like all processes, it can be studied and recorded. We must attempt to take a snapshot of the entire internet at a given moment at certain intervals, to rescue its contents from the annihilation sure to ensure from its turbulence, to map and diagram what is jumbled and incoherent, and to document the evolution of the mightiest force of our age.